“Moonlight” Movie Review


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     Movies and television have chronicled the lives of characters who grew up in low income drug infested neighborhoods countless times, but the fact director Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” essentially does the same, in no way detracts from the heartbreaking nature of the story.  Set in Miami, Jenkins’ film tells the story of a young African-American man from his early childhood years being raised by a drug addicted mother and no father, to the present where he’s a floundering twenty something with more questions than answers about himself and where he’s going.  Every moment of the film brings to light the sadness of a child who didn’t ask to be brought into this world, but is forced to cope with the situation created by the mistakes of those closest to him.

     “Moonlight” tells the story of Chiron (Alex Hibbert) , whom we meet at age 9 as he is being chased by a group of bullying kids through the alley ways of boarded up run down projects.  In order to evade them, he breaks into an abandoned apartment, locking himself in until the terrorizers decide to leave.  Soon after, someone tries to enter through the locked door without success, but then kicks down one of the boards covering a broken window.  It’s not one of the kids though.  Juan (Mahershala Ali, whom “House of Cards” fans will know as Remy Danton.), one of the neighborhoods more successful drug dealers saw the incident and decides to offer Chiron, known in the first act as “Little”, some food and a ride home which he accepts.

     This first section of the film focuses on the many obstacles young kids deal with each day, regardless of income, in what has become a much more complicated world.  Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), struggles with life and the realities of raising a 9 year old by herself.  We never are told what she does for work, but the assumption here is Chiron is off on his own quite a bit and is expected to somehow make it home at certain times.  The freedom Chiron has begins to translate into spending more time with Juan, who becomes a sort of father figure to him.  Beyond that, there are scenes in which we see those obstacles come to light in the form of neighborhood kids consistently testing each other to determine who is “soft” and who is “tough”.

     The second section, titled “Chiron” moves the character forward to high school where he is still the consistent target of bullying.  He has a friend he talks to who he grew up with, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), but is constantly targeted by a group of thugs, led by his nemesis Terrel (Patrick Decile) who seem to dislike him simply because of the possible idea he might be gay.  Jenkins makes this issue the central dilemma for the rest of the film, hinting at a possible connection between Chiron and Kevin, but also focusing on the difficulties associated with being in high school and dealing with your sexual identity.  Of course, many kids have the ability to gain counsel from the parents on these issues, but Paula is more concerned with shaking Chiron down for what ever money he may have in order to buy drugs.  With so many problems to deal with on his own, we feel the pain Chiron is experiencing, since we know there is nothing worse than having to get through life alone.

     The third act, titled “Black”, indicates just how much of an influence Juan had on Chiron (Travante Rhodes) as a young boy.  Taking many of the key characteristics exhibited by Juan, Chiron now lives in Atlanta where he controls a part of the drug trade in a run down neighborhood.  He has little focus and is clearly going nowhere in life, but carries the confidence his one time mentor had as he navigates life on the streets.  And then one day, he gets a call from Kevin (Andre Holland), who he hasn’t seen in over 10 years after a high school incident shipped Chiron out of Miami.  Jenkins utilizes many of the visual hallmarks used by Spike Lee, who seems to be an obvious influence on his work, with several shots framed with a soft glow and characters narrating the scenes but not necessarily saying the words on screen.  The technique creates a thought provoking effect from the point of view of the characters, which is highly appropriate here considering much of what we see are those thoughts rather than actual events.  But what makes “Moonlight” such an engaging coming of age story is its authenticity in telling the story of so many who don't know where to turn when a life of loneliness begins to take its toll. GRADE: B+